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Find Me
Author: Alafair Burke

 

Prologue

 

 

From PATCH

Hopewell-Pennington, NJ

 

POLICE SEEK WITNESSES TO ROLLOVER CRASH

A woman was found on Tuesday night with critical injuries, not far from an overturned 1999 Toyota 4Runner. Emergency crews responded at 11:20 PM to a report of a single-car accident on East Mountain Road in the Sourland Mountain Preserve.

The survivor, described as a young woman estimated to be in her late teens or early twenties, was transported to Capital Health Medical Center, where she remains in critical condition. Law enforcement is asking any witnesses who may have information about the cause of the accident or the identity of the vehicle’s occupant to contact Hopewell Police.

 

 

1

Saturday, June 12, 6:32 p.m.

Fifteen Years Later

 


Hope Miller shifted her gaze from the gas nozzle to the pump. When the gallon counter hit twelve, she scolded herself for not filling up before her trip into the city. She couldn’t risk an empty tank.

The nearest customer leaned against his green Jeep, sharing her same awkward wait, watching the digital numbers tick by. She noticed him looking at her. When he noticed her noticing, he flashed a practiced grin. She didn’t smile back.

That phrase, “It takes more muscles to frown than smile”? She had googled it once. Turns out, facial descriptions are subjective. Smiles, sneers, frowns, and smirks are all in the eye of the beholder. And the so-called facial nerve controls forty-something muscles, but some people have all of them, while others are missing almost half.

But scientists did agree on one thing—that smiles are innate. Reflexive. And viewed across cultures as a sign of friendliness.

A single man smiling at a single woman alone at a gas station at night?

He could be flirting. Hope didn’t think of herself as pretty, per se, but how many times had Lindsay called her a magnet for male attention?

Or he could be suggesting that she smile back, the nonverbal version of those comments men let fly so freely around total strangers—“Smile, honey. It’s a beautiful night”—as if it’s their business how a woman holds her face.

Or, she wondered as she risked another glance in his direction, this particular man might know her. Was this simply random eye contact from a stranger, or the reflexive smile of a person who thought he recognized her from his past? She imagined him saying, Hey, aren’t you . . .

She pushed the thought away. He didn’t seem especially curious. He was simply one of those guys who smiled at strangers for no reason at all.

One of the many downsides of using cash at a gas station was having to guess how much to prepay. She had a credit card from Lindsay for emergencies but tried not to use it. She squeezed the pump handle—one, two, three—to top off the tank at the forty bucks she had already given the cashier inside, patting herself mentally on the back for being so close. Returning the nozzle to the pump, she forced a polite smile in the man’s direction.

As she climbed into the front seat of her Honda Civic—Lindsay’s car, technically, like her credit card—she noticed Jeep Guy finishing up as well, sparking her anxieties again. He seemed to move too fast, both in terms of how long it had taken to fill the tank of an SUV and how quickly he maneuvered himself behind the wheel. She started the ignition, not bothering with her seat belt until she was out of the station and onto the service road. In the rearview mirror she saw the Jeep follow, making the turn from the station without slowing.

She merged onto the LIE. So did the Jeep. She tried to tell herself that most of the cars in the area were on the same route. She stayed in the right lane, waiting for him to pass, but two miles later, he remained directly behind her. He wasn’t exactly tailgating, but not even an attempt to pass on the left? Maybe the types of friendly people who smile at strangers for no reason are the same oddballs who, like her, obey the speed limit at all times.

Her grip tightened around the steering wheel when the Jeep’s headlights followed her off Exit 70 onto Route 111. She scolded herself: Stop. Wigging. Out. It’s the weekend, and you’re on the main road to the Hamptons in the summer. He’s just one car.

A different set of headlights suddenly appeared in the left lane, maybe a quarter mile back, closing the distance. As the new arrival cruised beneath a streetlamp, she could see that the vehicle was a police car—white with lights on the roof. Her foot immediately moved from the gas pedal to the brake, her eyes drifting involuntarily to the speedometer. She was now ten miles an hour beneath the speed limit. Going too slow, like going too fast, was good cause for a traffic stop.

She gave the engine more gas, and then shifted her gaze to the rearview mirror again. The Jeep was still on her. Maybe if she were a different person, she would tail the cop in the white car, or even barrel past him on the right, triggering a stop. She could explain it was all because of Jeep Guy, with the worrisome smile, still following her after nine miles.

But Hope didn’t have the luxury of that option. Her explanation for not having a license (at all) or a registration (in her name, at least) could lead to worse allegations—intoxication, insanity, a stolen car, something. So Hope maintained a perfect forty-five miles per hour through Manorville, waiting for the cop to pass.

The police car was two lengths behind her before she realized that what she had assumed were overhead lights was actually a luggage rack, mounted on a regular old Chevy sedan. “Jerk,” she whispered to herself. There should be a law against strapping stuff to white cars.

Jeep Guy finally turned off the main road once they hit Westhampton. All that worry for nothing. How many times had her imagination gotten carried away during the last fifteen years? She was so relieved that she didn’t give a thought to the white pickup truck that replaced the Jeep in her rearview mirror.

 

Hope had been to the house only once previously, and that was when Evan had been pitching himself to get the broker gig. He only brought her along to make his one-man outfit appear bigger than it was, but she promised when he gave her the job that she was willing to take on any assignment he’d entrust to her—even today’s last-minute drive to Manhattan and back because one of his renters ran off with a set of keys.

The listing was a five-bedroom, four-bath in Sagaponack, on the south side (aka, the good side) of the Montauk Highway. Asking price: $2,999,900, to keep it from hitting the $3 million mark. It would never sell for that, but Evan dangled a high number to lure the owners into hiring him. Hope knew from the math the realtor had scribbled on the back of an envelope after the initial visit that he planned to push the couple to accept any all-cash offer over two-point-five. With an all-cash offer, Evan would write up the deal on paper as $2 million, and then put five hundred grand in the owners’ hands tax-free, using a point of his commission as necessary to sweeten the deal. The Stansfields—Stan and Robin, the couple that owned the house—had struck Hope as much too nice and normal to accept that kind of arrangement, but according to Evan, everyone out here did it. Sure, Evan—just like every legit realtor is willing to hire a former waitress who doesn’t have a social security number and needs to get paid in cash.

Evan was shady, no doubt, but he’d proven himself to be a good coach since she moved to town the month before. She had watched him set up open houses before, and he had taught her exactly how a property should look and feel and even smell to reel in a buyer right away.

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